Print. Publishing. Issue. Report. Paper. Journalism. Editor. Magazine. Investigative. Title. Archive. Column. News stand. They’re seen as legacy media businesses, the kind that analysts have marked down by, at best, 15% compared to their digital rivals. So what does the media future look like? 

New Worlds Old Words

On the surface the analyst mark down is done with good reason: the potential reach of any online play is global. Costs are significantly reduced. Whereas the physical business is saddled with the disadvantages of the opposite kind: local boundaries, limitations of physical reach, snail pace distribution, historic manufacturing costs, logistical complexity. Bad news all round. Truth is, of course, if there were pure physical businesses left, they wouldn’t be left. They would reach too few, too late, at super-high costs.

So, what we really should compare are multi-format enterprises with both legacy and digital plays, in new formats and online-native businesses and pure-play digital ventures. When you compare hybrid diversity vs. digital purity, the competitive differences aren’t quite so stark. Attending today’s Changing Media summit made us reconsider these factors. 

We’d argue that offering content in many diverse formats (including physical) may get closer to satisfying more consumers in more contexts, more of the time, in more ways. That, we believe, is a real source of competitive advantage. Firstly, because the expense of sourcing, authoring and shaping content which is what customers are really after accounts for the lion’s share of costs, compared to its distribution. And secondly, because this creates more diverse and valuable experiences to choose from.

Media needs to shape itself around people, their individual ways and their time, fast.

As Gary Vaynerchuck said at the Guardian’s Changing Media Summit keynote and as Anna Jones added, context is all important. You talk to the room, to the situation, to the mood, not to a mass. 

People pick up a glossy, in a me-time chill mood; they leaf through the broadsheet in update mode; go roaming online when serendipity grabs them; reach for Kindle on the plane. It’s Cosmo print edition one moment, online the next. 

A book is sensuous and touching (in both senses of the word). We love the sound of the pages turning, even the smell of print. I read the magazine version of the Economist on the Eurostar, my neighbour has it on her smartphone. As Anna Jones suggested today, the challenge for a business like Hearst is not whether magazines remain relevant, they manifestly do. The challenge is to match content, context, and consumers to the brands who want to meet them.

The challenge is to match content, context and consumers to the brands who want to meet them.

Let’s agree then that distribution will be format-agnostic and multi-channel, and turn instead to the essential source of media value: original quality content. It has never gone and will never go out of fashion. Humankind needs its stories, its news, gossip, fables and dreams like it needs oxygen. And people are driven to create them. These people are journalists, writers, reporters, editors and columnists, storytellers and game inventors, analysts and investigators.

Not aggregators. Not code writers. The role of the techies is to get content to audiences in new ways, which is brilliant of course. They are changing the way we consume media and how we respond to it. It’s also, currently where the money is. But if their system isn’t fed with the stuff people want to take in, the food for thought, the stuff of conversation and the fuel of social interaction; if the content supply is interrupted – then the techies will have nothing to aggregate. 

What, apart from capability and talent (naturally of inestimable value), will drive a young reporter to embed with ISIS at the risk of losing his freedom, if not his head? What will convince an ardent oceanographer to spend her months in arctic discomfort to chronicle the shifts of our ice layers? Why would the summa cum laude in maths abandon her lucrative hedge fund trajectory to shine a light on dark and questionable corners of international aid? Vocation, passion, campaign spirit, a sense of true worth. And the possibility of making a decent living at the same time. Their work, the output that sets our minds racing and our ideas alight, cannot come for free. The progress of knowledge, society and culture costs money. Those who put themselves in harm’s way, who sacrifice comfort and the easy life, need to be paid. Or they’ll head straight back to the hedge fund. 

This is as self-evident as it is resisted by a new generation of media consumers (by no means the young exclusively). They contend that they pay for it through exposure to advertising, and advertisers pay media owners to reach them. That’s partial and negative paying. It does not place adequate value and a real price on content. 

The preeminent challenge remains, first, to defend old journalistic values and the old concepts, processes and language that are all about creating humanity’s content and describing their benefits. Old is not out. Old made new, wins. Paper and screens. Words and images. Depth as well as celebration. Analysis and also raw emotions. Info and stories. Borrowed and original. New. And old. Because in our media future, no such trade-offs are required. 

Sign up to our newsletter. Culture, trends, forecasting, insights: Get a progressive point of view on the way we live.

Sign up